TV star Richard Hammond ventured deep into the Amazon for his new Sky 1 programme ‘Richard Hammond’s Jungle Quest’, which airs on 16 and 23 September. The show sees Richard attempting to realise his childhood dream of being a wildlife photographer. We caught up with Richard to ask him about his jungle adventure…
What made you want to be a wildlife photographer as a child?
I was fascinated with the natural world from a very young age and for my eighth birthday was given an encyclopaedia of nature which became a prized possession. My other favourite pastime was photography – I set up a darkroom in the cupboard under the stairs and by age 11 was developing and printing my own photographs, taken on a Zenith ET 35mm camera.
Bringing the two enthusiasms together was the most natural thing in the world, although I lacked the nerve to take it any further. I also only had one lens for my camera and lived in a Birmingham suburb which made wildlife photography a bit of a challenge. Both the camera and the book feature in the show and it was a weird and wonderful feeling to be there in the Amazon with real, physical symbols of my childhood enthusiasms.
Why did you want to visit the Amazon in particular?
TV naturalist David Bellamy ran a competition for young viewers. We were invited to submit a nature diary of everything we saw in our garden and the winner of the competition would be taken on a filming trip along the Amazon with David. This was the most exciting thing imaginable to me and I begged my mum to buy me a notebook and a set of colouring pencils. I created my nature diary over a couple of weeks and it was great. Although I made up most of what was in it – there are actually no tapirs, skinks or leopards wandering across the plains of suburban Birmingham, but they may have featured in my diary.
Another favourite of mine from my nature book was the baobab trees and I may have accidentally slipped a couple of those into my nature diary too. I have since seen baobab trees in the wild, on Kubu Island in Botswana, and it was a truly haunting experience to meet these monolithic, living things that have stalked my dreams since I was a child. Patting their flanks was like patting a dinosaur and I was quite moved.
Which animal did you most want to capture on film?
I really wanted to capture a shot of the pink river dolphins. Numbers are dwindling and they are a fascinating example of adaptation and evolution. This is a dolphin that lives in a forest, right in amongst the trees during the lengthy wet season when the river spreads to 40km across, flooding metres up the trees. The dolphin has evolved a special shape, special dorsal fin, enhanced sonar and flexibility to be able to swim amongst the trees finding food.
What was the best thing that happened when you were filming in the Amazon?
Early on, paddling our canoes through the fringes of the flooded forest, we were looking for sloths and I had seen none. I really wanted to photograph one because it is, for me, so linked with the area.
My guide Eduardo stopped us by a strangling tree because I wanted to see closely how the tendrils and thin trunks of the parasitic tree had ultimately strangled the host to create a dense, self-supporting tangle of its own. Eduardo leaped from the canoe and climbed the tree, leaving me alone on the water, and then he came down and told me there was a sloth sleeping in a hollow. I figured I would never get the chance again so I hauled myself out of the canoe and climbed the tree, Eduardo’s comment that the tree played host to spiders, scorpions, snakes and bats ringing in my ears.
I found the sloth, curled in a bowl of branches and experienced a life-affirming, wonderful moment that I know will remain always with me as I leaned in and photographed the sleeping creature. They have no natural defensive mechanisms and so their reactions to perceived predators don’t extend much beyond moving slowly away and hoping their camouflage works. But to share a quiet, sleeping moment with a sloth was wonderful.
Did you photography skills improve on your trip?
I learned a lot about photographing natural subjects, but there is a lot to learn and I guess I barely scratched the surface. Patience is important, yes, but it’s difficult to spend weeks sitting in a hide waiting for a subject to return to its nest or hole when you’ve only got a fortnight to produce a TV show.
Good photographers know their subjects too, they can anticipate what they will do and be ready for it. And I learned a lot technically too, about anticipating focus, depth of field and exposure, so that when a subject turns up you have the camera ready for it and can concentrate on framing.
What did you learn about the Amazon?
I learned that it is a unique place that transforms across the year and has evolved to deal specifically with those transformations. The result is a wonderful and sometimes crazy, noisy, puzzling, frustrating, joyous, hilarious and mad place that goes on around you like a mad party all day and all night. Those really in tune with the place can see things with their ears and sense when a creature is going to appear briefly through the trees as it goes about its life.
This is not a place like the great African plains where animals put on a show on a grand scale. The Amazon rainforest, though vast, is intimate and private and as intense as it is dense and there is a sense of the inter-connectivity of every living thing within it, and the contribution they make, large and small, to the whole is critical. It’s a balancing act and is enchanting to wander through.
Now you’ve seen it for yourself, why do you think protecting the Amazon is so important?
Clearly there are the arguments about creatures and plant life that exist only there and they should be protected. And there are arguments that there are things yet to be discovered in the rainforest that might offer medical solutions or other critical service to humanity. Above all though, I would like to see it preserved precisely because it is so unique, so very special.
I came to an area where the forest had been cut back – the deforestation we hear so much about. It wasn’t a big area, maybe [the size of] a large parking lot, and it had probably been cleared by a local looking to earn a living to support their family. I couldn’t condemn them for doing what I and every other person with a family would do, which is try anything to support their family. It just struck me as a terrible, crashing shame that here, in this little patch, the crazy, mad, noisy, dangerous, funny world of the rainforest and its billions of frogs, insects, trees, flowers creatures, noises and senses had stopped so suddenly. I said in the film that it was like being at the best house party you ever went to and then suddenly someone turns on all the lights and it’s over.
How did filming this programme change your view of the threats to our planet?
I saw for myself, first hand, how sad it is, even on the scale of single human, when places – actual places vibrant with specialised life and techniques for survival – are ended. Each such place is a world in its own right and beyond, perhaps, the potential effects for our species, I think it would be wonderful if we could step back for a moment sometimes and say, you know what, that’s just a wonderful place. It doesn’t need us in it, it doesn’t need to change, let’s just leave it to get on with being itself and we can be happy knowing it’s there.
‘Richard Hammond’s Jungle Quest’ airs on Sky 1 HD on Wednesday 16 and 23 September at 9pm.
The programme is part of Sky’s Amazon-themed programming in support of Sky Rainforest Rescue, WWF’s unique partnership with Sky which comes to end this month having achieved our target of helping to keep a billion trees standing in the Amazon.